Evolutionary Drivers of Electric Signal Diversity

  • Rüdiger KraheEmail author
Part of the Springer Handbook of Auditory Research book series (SHAR, volume 70)


The electric signals of weakly electric fishes have seen impressive diversification since the independent origin of electric organs in the ancestors of Gymnotiformes and Mormyroidea approximately 100 million years ago. Whether the primary selective advantage of electric organs lay in their use for communication or for active sampling of the environment is unclear and may be difficult to determine. Several evolutionary innovations in both signal generation and sensory processing appear to have widened the available signal space and thus promoted dramatic radiations. Sensory drive mechanisms are unlikely to have played a major role in the diversification of signals, except for a potential role of flow regimes. Life in faster flow appears to promote faster sensory sampling and thus higher electric organ discharge rates. It seems likely that signal diversification has been driven more strongly by biotic factors. Sexual selection on signal properties and reproductive character displacement appear to have had a strong influence on signal waveform and the associated spectral properties and also on discharge frequency. Diverse evidence suggests that predation by eavesdropping electroreceptive predators has favored the reduction of low-frequency power in the signals. The observation of male signals with strong low-frequency power in sexually dimorphic species is consistent with handicap signals in that they might increase the risk of predation and also the energetic cost of signal generation. Low-frequency male signals may also have been favored by sensory bias of the receiving animals because these signals might also activate the passive, ampullary electrosensory system.


Energetic constraints Eavesdropping Genetic drift Gymnotiform Mormyrid Neural innovation Predation Reproductive character displacement Sexual selection Weakly electric fish 



I am grateful to Bernhard Ronacher, Livio Oboti, and Lisa Schilha for critically reading the manuscript and to Jason Gallant, Frank Kirschbaum, Stefan Mucha, Kerri Ackerly, and Sophie Picq for providing some of the recordings used for Fig. 7.1.

Compliance with Ethics Requirements

Rüdiger Krahe declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für Biologie, Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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